Pastoring a church is a very demanding calling. The congregation has various needs that they expect the pastor to address, the officers and staff need guidance, there are seemingly endless email requests from outside ministries wanting support, there are crises that arise without warning, and through it all the pastor has a family of his own and a sermon he needs to write and preach on Sunday.
When I speak with fellow-pastors I hear their desire to delve into theology for enjoyment and self-edification, but there is no time. What I would like to offer fellow-pastors are some ideas on how to maintain theological richness and rigor in the pastorate. These are some things that I employ for myself and have found them useful.
1. Dust off and re-read your seminary textbooks.
When I enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary as a masters student there were certain books that were foundational to my studies. For example, Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God by John Frame, He Gave Us Stories by Richard Pratt, and The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern Poythress were all quite instrumental in serving as the ground for my biblical and theological training.
Reading these works as a young seminarian with the added pressure of assignments and examinations was one thing, but reading them now as a seasoned pastor is quite another. There is now far more freedom to read at my own pace and to further explore the content. I recently completed a re-read of Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen and found that I can better understand the issues contained in the book because of my experience in working with the flock.
2. Serve on Presbytery’s Examining Committee.
The Presbyterian Church in America requires its teaching elders to serve on Presbytery committees. Though there are many committees to choose from, and some that require very little advanced preparation, I chose to serve on the examining committee. Serving on the examining committee requires its members to be well-read and current on various theological discussions. Committee members read theological and exegetical papers, listen to sermons, and examine candidates (both written and oral) in many content areas. This committee requires that its members continually study.
3. Study the Reformed Creeds and Confessions.
I appreciate the Reformed Creeds and Confessions far more now than I did in seminary. These documents provide excellent summaries and cross-references. Though my denomination aligns itself with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, I spend a lot of time reading The Heidelberg, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort. There is rarely a day that goes by where I don’t spend some time reading one of the Reformed creeds.
4. Subscribe to quality podcasts, blogs, and online theological classes.
Technology has its advantages and disadvantages, but I am thankful to live in a day where so much quality teaching is available online. I listen to lectures, sermons, and subscribe to a number of blogs and online classes. I recently searched for a lecture by John Frame and found one he delivered at Westminster many years ago. I also recently found a series of sermons by Sinclair Ferguson that were fantastic and provided me with much fodder for my own sermons.
5. Make study a priority.
Pastors often hear that prayer should be a priority, and it should, but a similar plea should also be made of study. Some pastors spend very little time in sermon preparation and study, and it shows in their preaching. Expounding on Scripture requires biblical and theological literacy and that can be achieved only through dedicated study. My personal charge to pastors who neglect study has always been this: have the integrity to leave the pulpit ministry for one who will give the preaching of the gospel its proper priority.
6. Request study time away.
Every church should offer its pastor paid study time away. I know some churches are more able to do this than others, but for the sake of the pastor, and more importantly the congregation, it is critical that there be a time of study. I know some pastors in my denomination see General Assembly as a time to get away for a week, attend to business, and take time for edification seminars. Personally, I do not view this as the ideal study getaway but for some pastors this is all they have.
7. Go back to seminary for refreshers.
Most seminaries offer their graduates decreased auditing fees for continuing education. Every pastor should return to seminary to audit a class on a regular basis, but I think few actually do this. Some pastors may not live near a seminary (especially the one they graduated from), but this brings me back to my fourth point: see if the seminary offers classes online (or through iTunes).
8. Maintain communication and camaraderie with seminary professors.
I was blessed to have studied in a seminary whose professors were more than mere instructors to me; they were fathers, brothers, and friends. These men were humble scholars and every time I contacted them, even years after I graduated, they always took the time to respond. Even new faculty who arrived after my studies were completed became my friends. I call on these professors for continued guidance in my studies and ministry and have yet to be turned down.
I was recently preparing for a study on Habakkuk and contacted a couple of professors for their guidance on study material. Their recommendations did so much to enhance my personal study as well as enhance the class as a whole. They have so much wisdom and insight and I am grateful that they long to serve the church with the gifts God has given them.
9. Acquire quality works.
I am very selective in what books I purchase. If I desire to read an author with whom I am unfamiliar, I will sometimes search online to see if there is a shorter piece, like an essay, to help me determine if I want to buy their books. I did this recently with Jürgen Moltmann. I have read works that have cited Moltmann, but have never read him directly. After reading some of his essays I didn’t want to pursue him much further. Though I found his works interesting, it was not favorable enough to warrant adding him to my library. Here is some wisdom from John Frame in The Doctrine of the Word of God that I keep in mind when purchasing books,
God’s Word is the ultimate criterion of truth and right. It is the judge of what reasoning is valid and sound. The ultimate test of a scholar is whether his work agrees with Scripture. And Scripture determines what evidences are to be believed.
10. Spend time daily reading and devoting from God’s Word.
I know this sounds obvious and I am almost embarrassed to include this on my list, but I trust that many pastors are so overwhelmingly busy with administrative duties that they spend very little time in God’s Word. We have to remember that pastors are ordained and called to a specific ministry in the earthly church: to be ministers of Word and Sacrament. One does not need to be ordained to visit the sick, or give grace to the poor, or put out fires that may erupt among church members. After all, Scripture instructs that the saints should be equipped for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). But one does need to be ordained to consistently preach the Word and faithfully administer the Sacraments in the context of corporate worship. Those two things require study and the attention of an ordained minister.